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National Park Service to remove ban on some hunting practices in Alaska

The rule allows shooting bears and cubs in their dens, killing caribou from motorized boats and chasing bears with dogs

Brown bears fish for salmon on Baranof Island on Chatham Strait in Alaska last year.
Brown bears fish for salmon on Baranof Island on Chatham Strait in Alaska last year. (Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The National Park Service unveiled a rule to allow once-banned hunting tactics such as the shooting of hibernating bears on 22 million acres of federal land in Alaska, a move the state delegation supports.

The rule, finalized Tuesday and slated to go into effect in 30 days, in time for summer hunting, allows on federal land methods that environmentalists and conservationists denounce as cruel and gruesome, like shooting bears and cubs in their dens, killing caribou from motorized boats and chasing bears with dogs.

In a proposal Wednesday for a different rule, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service moved to weaken hunting restrictions in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Alaska, including to allow use of so-called bait stations to lure and kill brown bears. And the FWS proposed in April expanding hunting and fishing on 97 wildlife refuges and nine fish hatcheries nationwide — a total of 2.3 million acres.

“The Trump administration just seems dead-set on appeasing trophy hunters,” Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization, said in an interview. “It’s kind of a killing contest.”

Both agencies are within the Interior Department, and they say the moves this week align federal law with Alaska state law.

Expanding hunting territory has been a Trump administration priority since 2017, when President Donald Trump leaned on Republicans to repeal a federal restriction on hunting predators, and key figures in Trump’s orbit, including his son Donald Jr. and first Interior Department secretary, Ryan Zinke, are avid hunters.

In 2015, during the Obama administration, the NPS prohibited sport-hunting and trapping tactics on some federal lands in Alaska.

Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation, Sens. Dan Sullivan and. Lisa Murkowski, and Rep. Don Young, supports the change, as does its Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy.

“Congressman Young is an avid outdoorsman and conservationist, and believes that wildlife management is best done at the state level,” Zack Brown, a spokesman for Young, said in an emailed statement. “Alaskans have always been the best stewards of our resources, and the State does not allow inhumane wildlife management practices. Congressman Young supports this rule change because it restores power back where it belongs: the State of Alaska.”

In May, Sullivan and Murkowski described the rule as a “matter of states’ rights” and thanked the administration for reversing the 2015 provision.

Subsistence hunting

Supporters of the shift said it will help rural Alaskans who often rely on what they can reel in or kill to survive.

“With an abundance of fish and wildlife, a significant number of sportsmen and women, and a considerable number of people who live a subsistent lifestyle, the management of Alaska’s fish and wildlife resources should be left to those at the closest level, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is what this final rule seeks to do,” Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, said in a statement.

When he led the department, Zinke wrote a memo in July 2017 urging the NPS to scrutinize “prohibitions that directly contradict State of Alaska authorizations and wildlife management decisions…for sport hunting and commercial trapping on National Park Service lands.”

A bipartisan group of 79 members of Congress called upon Zinke in August 2018 to withdraw a draft version of the rule unveiled Tuesday.

Environmental groups are widely expected to sue over the NPS rule change and Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the administration was “declaring open season on bears and wolves” during an international pandemic.

“National preserve lands at Denali, Katmai, Gates of the Arctic and others are the very places where people travel from around the world, in hopes of seeing these iconic animals, alive in their natural habitat,” Pierno said. “Shooting hibernating mama and baby bears is not the conservation legacy that our national parks are meant to preserve and no way to treat or manage park wildlife.”

The rule could bring about the slaughter of critical predator species, like bears and wolves, that hold together ecosystems by culling weaker and ill prey, said Adkins.

“These are animals that have traditionally been highly exploited,” Adkins said in an interview, adding that bears and wolves are “not like deer,” known for their capacity to quickly rebound in population. “They’re just much trickier,” Adkins said. “I’m concerned that these rules are going to really decimate” these species.

The new NPS rule will let hunters shine flashlights into bear dens and shoot mother bears and their cubs, as well as the use of what is known as “bear baiting” — in which hunters dump food into a pile, draw their weapons and wait for animals to approach.

“They just dump piles of human food, like old stale donuts, and wait for the bears to come,” Adkins said. Bacon grease is also a common lure.

Donald Trump Jr., the most prominent hunter in the Trump political ecosystem, is known for his far-flung hunting trips and an Alaskan hunting guide in February auctioned off a trip with Trump Jr. and his son.

The trip, organized through the hunting group Safari Club International, is scheduled for November with Keegan McCarthy, owner of Coastal Alaska Adventures.

On Monday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), published documents showing a trip of Donald Trump Jr.’s to Mongolia, where he hunted and killed an endangered sheep, cost the Secret Service $76,859.36 to provide security.

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